A small argument broke out as I was sitting at the back of the number 26 bus from the Gare du Nord recently. A well-dressed, middle-aged lady was upset at a young man sitting next to her after he …
A small argument broke out as I was sitting at the back of the number 26 bus from the Gare du Nord recently. A well-dressed, middle-aged lady was upset at a young man sitting next to her after he addressed her with the familiar “tu” form. She was castigating the youth for his lack of politesse, huffing and puffing and refusing to answer his question unless he learned some basic manners. Another man on the bus was rather tickled by the situation and piped in on side of the young man, saying: “S’il vous plait, madame, vous ne voulez pas qu’on vous appelle Madame la Duchesse aussi?”
I have thought about this rather amusing episode frequently in recent months, partly because it always brings a smile to my face but also because it reinforces what I have learned about the importance of observing basic etiquette in any interaction with French people. There seems to be an unwritten code of social conduct mandating that any verbal communication must begin with “Bonjour, monsieur” or “Bonjour, madame,” and thereafter the use of the “vous” form unless told otherwise. Failing to adhere to this formality is to risk being given the cold shoulder.
Like the man on the bus, I too learned the hard way. Just before Christmas, I asked a youngish man in the street for directions. It was all very innocent and coupled with an appropriately perplexed face. I even prefaced my question with “Excusez-moi, monsieur, mais est-ce que vous savez …” One would think that the formal rules of etiquette would be more flexible among younger people, and the approach less traditional or formal, but the stern response to my question was, “Bonsoir?” I replied “Pardon, monsieur, bonsoir,” and everything then ran smoothly.
Armed with my new knowledge of the importance of traditional politeness at all levels of French society, I was able to help a friend who had just moved to Paris from the UK. When she told me that the employees at her local supermarket were unfriendly, I advised her to greet the lady at the till with “Bonjour, madame.” It worked. “Oh, she was lovely this time!” my friend reported.
It all seems to boil down to a principle of showing basic respect for others, expressed simply and most commonly in the everyday form of address. Everyone is entitled to a “Bonjour, monsieur” or “Bonjour, madame,” from the beggar sitting outside the supermarket to the bus driver (I love to hear the old ladies shouting, “Monsieur! Monsieur! La porte, s’il vous plait,” when the bus doors have closed in their face) and up the social scale to the point where titles are also included. In, France, even in a stressed-out city like Paris, no one is less than a monsieur or a madame. It’s all rather exquisite and a recognition that despite social inequalities we are all of equal value underneath the froth.
You have to be on your guard, however, as politesse can also be used as a soft weapon. I find the whole social set-up so charming, for example, that I am totally disarmed when a waiter or someone in a shop who is clearly offering poor service – or indeed ripping me off – addresses me in all politeness. I am too browbeaten to stand up for myself or complain. These charm offensives get me every time. I have often experienced it as a way of deflecting criticism or discussion about poor goods or service, or as a way of convincing me to buy something that either I don’t really want or at a price I don’t really want to pay. I am so weakened I just pay up and kick myself later for having fallen for it.
There have been times, however, when I have been tougher and given a hard, blank stare to a waiter to make it clear to him that I wasn’t stupid and that I knew the level of service was below par. Other times I have found a shop assistant so rude that I myself have resorted the “tu” form to show I wasn’t impressed. It is registered in the expression on their faces, and probably takes them by surprise, too, but, as a foreigner, I just about get away with it. Such behavior, however, is an abuse of a rather precious system that is based on equality and an impressive level of respect for strangers.
It was a black man who offended the “duchess” on the 26 bus, and I initially thought she was being racist. She may well have been stronger in her criticism because of the color of his skin, who can say, but what is clear is that she would have certainly been as polite as can be if only he had addressed her as “vous.”
For another point of view on the question of politesse, click here.
Reader Harriet Welty Rochefort writes:
“Hello, Mr. Woods (you will note that I am being as formal as the French),
“Thanks for your funny and perspicacious article on the intricacies of politesse in France. In my book French Toast, I devoted an entire chapter to the subject, so fascinated was I by the nuances and codes the French practice, still today. Politesse being the glue that holds this society together, I hope that even in the age of Internet, old ladies who don’t like being addressed as ‘tu’ will continue to exist and castigate those young whippersnappers who dare to do so!”
Editor’s note: The paperback edition of French Toast (St. Martin’s Press) is due out in 2010. Harriet Welty Rochefort is also the author of French Fried.
Reader Little Shiva writes:
“I live in Charleroi, Belgium and it’s the same here. You have to start with ‘hello’ and ‘vous,’ then take it from there. Just launching right in American style to whatever you have to say without even a ‘bonjour, madame’ will definitely get you stared at coldly. And you’re right, younger people expect that too, even though the ones I’ve met are a little more flexi.”
© 2009 Paris Update
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